The Watchful Eyes: A Close Reading of One Paragraph from The Great Gatsby

This passage is introducing not necessarily a character but rather a billboard overlooking the Valley of Ashes. The watchful eyes of the billboard become personified by being referred to as him, they become the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, and they symbolize Nick Carraway our narrator. The Eyes are ever vigilant over the slums, watching the sadness that befalls this area, this wasteland so close to the rich parties and indulgences of the East and West Eggs along the Long Island Sound. As they narrate the area, the Eyes never cease their cold viewing of the tragedy in the lives of the people who live in the Valley of Ashes. The following four sentences will come to mean much more as we analyze them using New Criticism methods.


“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – – their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many painless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” (Fitzgerald 27)


We cannot forget that Nick himself wrote this paragraph. He puts focus on the Eyes as a way to portray the way he feels about himself. The cold, colorless, empty feeling the paragraph provokes is foreshadowing the demise that he will be witness to, the “spasms of bleak dust” that he will be left with at the end of the book. The organic unity of this paragraph is that it makes us feel the lack of color and life that exists everywhere in the story, its tone and melody are cold and lifeless. It portrays the life here well, and what Nick is witness to and eventually tells us the reader.

The desperation the watchful Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg see is a symbol for the lives of the characters in the book, and the parallels between Nick and the Eyes are telling. Like the Eyes, Nick rarely speaks or provides much input so far as we know, he too is a watcher of the tragedy and turmoil that occurs along the Long Island Sound area. He does little to interfere as events spin out of control, as money orders people’s lives, as those lives become colorless and without happiness. This symbol is made clear in one of the final paragraphs of the book where Nick says, “As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world,”(Fitzgerald 189). Just as the Eyes “brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” These two characters, one a faceless doctor, and one the narrator stare at the same thing in different places. Overlooking the lives of those in the Valley of Ashes and in the two rich eggs of the Long Island Sound respectively, where people’s lives are so different but connected by their sadness within them. Both pairs of eyes monitor, thinking deeply on their observations with unhappiness, and both do nothing to change it. This is the definition for brood, but it can also mean to hang or hover closely according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. The Eyes clearly do this, hanging out over a billboard, but Nick does too, he is always close by, hanging around when the other characters need him. Here he comes along for the ride like usual: “…[H]is determination to have my company bordering on violence…I followed him over a low whitewashed railroad fence , and we walked back a hundred yards…” (Fitzgerald 28).

The section plays out like an old black and white photo covered in a “bleak dust”, as Merriam Webster defines bleak, it is “lacking warmth”. The only colors in the billboard are the blue eyes and yellow glasses, the rest can be assumed as black and white, and all of it deadened with age, the color is mediocre at best. Blue is enduring like the ocean or the Long Island Sound so close by, “The most domesticated body of salt water in the western hemisphere” (Fitzgerald 9). Blue is a continuing theme throughout the book and it is used to represent hopefulness, according to Lois Tyson in her New Criticism essay on the Great Gatsby (Tyson 155), but here it is just advertising hopefulness to those that probably cannot afford it, by an eye doctor to “fatten his practice”. It is a ruse of hopefulness, as most of the characters in the book don’t get what they want. Then there is the yellow of the glasses, they certainly are not bright after so long, they would be barely noticeable, an off white, an attempt at color, not alive or vibrant in any way. The word usage here is also reminiscent of this imagery of colorlessness. Gray, bleak, ashen, and paintless all remind us of the lack of color in the lives of the characters that live here. The Eyes that we would be looking at, if we noticed them staring at us from town, would only provoke more darkness.

Nick’s sentence structure in the paragraph is as cold and dark as life is in the Valley of Ashes. It is plentiful of information but never excited or fun, instead it is choppy and direct. It plays out like a wasted life: First the setting is described, then the introduction to the Eyes. It describes them physically, then their origins, finally it leaves them alone, solitary, to carry on day after long day till an inevitable destruction; “Under sun and rain, brood on…” From reading it we do not expect things to get better, it leaves only hardness and hopelessness. Each sentences caries little melody, each is flat and lifeless, with only a hint of irony held within the four sentences. The irony is of the rich and poor, this forgotten billboard is the only thing to watch over this similarly forgotten land. Rich people drive through the town, and rich people put up billboards here, but no one cares about this place, save for the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. This reminds us of Nick’s solidarity in knowing the information of Gatsby’s secret past, and of his sadness at Gatsby’s tragic end.

“The solemn dumping ground” is how the town is described. Over and over again we are given the same picture in our minds of this town and the same feeling of emptiness. The words used to describe the face further prove this, “no face” and a “nonexistent nose”, leave this character absent of humanity. Even the eye doctor who paid for the sign is thought to have fallen into “eternal blindness.” The language of the paragraph leaves a hollowness that persists throughout the book.

In conclusion the Eyes in this billboard were written in by Nick to symbolize his own dark perspective on what he viewed during his stay in the Long Island Sound area, and his attempt to distance himself from it. The story that Nick tells is not a happy one, though most of it involves the super rich, and not the super poor as this single paragraph does, both sets of eyes see one and the same thing, something akin to the ruins of a fire, it is tragic and desolate. The only difference between the Doctor’s Eyes and Nick’s is that Nick played some role in the events that took place, whereas Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is afforded the ability to sit back and observe from a distance.



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